Merced County Times Newspaper
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‘Perfect Storm’ story has Happy Christmas ending

After 22 years of living on the streets, local Merced will be 'Home For Christmas'


‘While they were homeless, they never complained about anything.
They’re humbled that they’re still alive and breathing.’

Sue Emanivong,
Healthy House 

Sebastian Junger’s book, A Perfect Storm, tells the tale of a North Atlantic storm that took 13 lives in 1991. It happened as a result of a nor’easter that absorbed Hurricane Grace and evolved into a small, unnamed hurricane itself which was dubbed the “Perfect Storm.” 

This moniker has come to symbolize any time a succession of bad breaks or circumstances combine to produce a catastrophic outcome. 

Such storms can happen anywhere, even in small cities like Merced.

One such storm happened in the 1990s, as chronicled in Professor Anne Fadiman’s book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It tells the sad tale of the clash between Hmong Shamanism culture and the Western medical establishment over the care of a young Hmong girl with epilepsy — a dilemma largely responsible for the establishment of Healthy House, Merced’s internationally-renowned cultural advocacy project.  

However, some cultural storms endure, even today, begging for resolution.

One of these began in the mid-1990s, after a Southeast Asian couple, Chan and May (not their real names), emigrated to the U.S. with their children. The couple were natives of Laos, spoke no English, and had no skills easily transferrable to the American marketplace. But they were survivors.

Their “perfect storm” started when Chan was arrested for opium possession, a culturally accepted practice that wasn’t considered a crime in Laos until 1996. Soon thereafter, Child Protective Services took their eight children into protective custody. Then, upon losing their AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the couple were evicted and began couch-surfing and, eventually, living on the street. Their lack of extended family in the area made life even more difficult since providing familial support is intrinsic to all Southeast Asian cultures. As non-English speakers who never acculturated well, they frequently fell prey to harassment as well as theft of their meager possessions and their ID and Social Security cards.

Homeless and living on the streets of Merced, Chan became adept at constructing cardboard huts to provide minimal protection from the elements. Their food, always including a large bag of rice, was closely guarded as they lugged their belongings from place to place. They would hunker down behind businesses until they fell prey to unsavory characters or were evicted. Both experienced health problems. May, 59, and Chan, 65, have had to deal with the toll that 22 years of homelessness has taken on their bodies and psyches. During the past decade, May started losing her sight, resulting in blindness, and both suffered from untreated Hepatitis C, common among Southeast Asian immigrants.

A ray of sunshine finally burst through the storm in their lives when a coalition of public agencies and private non-profits, all part of the Continuum of Care of Merced County, started to coordinate services to help them find housing.  First, Catholic Charities sent them to Healthy House to get much-needed cultural and language assistance and advocacy. However, after several bouts of temporary housing, they were back on the street. Healthy House staff, Candice Adam-Medefind and Nai Saechao, with the help of the police DART Team, found them again in a cardboard shanty behind a local business.  

At about the same time, Merced County and New Directions implemented Project Roomkey at a local motel, courtesy of state funding and the efforts of County Supervisor Lloyd Parreira and Assemblyman Adam Gray, to provide transitional housing to the homeless during the pandemic. The project agreed to house them. A collaboration between Healthy House, Sierra Saving Grace Homeless Project, and Human Services Agency then made permanent housing in an apartment possible. Human Services provided kitchen supplies and furniture and Healthy House and Sierra Saving Grace staff helped move them in.

“While they were homeless, they never complained about anything,” said Sue Emanivong, Healthy House staffer. “They’re humbled that they’re still alive and breathing.”  

And, better yet, they have now reconnected with three of their eight grown children. 

Saechao provided advocacy in court to help them clear up long-standing legal issues. She also assisted the couple by getting new IDs and much-needed medical appointments, including a life-changer with a local optometrist. He referred May for cataract surgery, which she recently completed, allowing her to see for the first time in a decade. “She is overjoyed,” said Saechao. 

The non-profit continues to provide intensive case management, and even a Christmas tree, courtesy of Healthy House Homeless Advocate, Linda Dash.  

“I’m proud to be a part of an agency that helps vulnerable clients like May and Chan,” said Dash. “They celebrated the holidays by  decorating their first Christmas tree, and the Christmas song ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ was written for them this year.”

For further information, call Healthy House at (209) 724-0102.

Healthy House staff members Linda Dash, Sue Emanivong  and Nai Saechao admire the tree at the home of ‘May,’ who had been homeless for more than 20 years.
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